Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
I am glad to see you. This is our annual come-back-to-church day. Some of you have been away this summer, and some of you haven’t. But it is great to see all of you. Today we have a picnic with food from Blue Acre Seafood, a bouncy house, and henna tattoos. It is sort of our tradition, at least since I’ve been here.
At Epiphany we gather to praise God and to see friends. Lately, I’ve been calling this parish a gym for our souls, where we practice the Christian lifestyle on Sunday in preparation for our Monday-through-Saturday lives. That is what I want to talk about today. In fact, “we need to talk.” (This is when I push down my glasses and look at you like this.) “We need to talk.” Have you ever heard those words? Have you ever said those words: “We need to talk”? They provoke a little bit of stirring inside the hearer and a little bit of anxiety inside the speaker. These are words that suggest a conversation we probably aren’t excited to have. It is how Emily led us into her great sermon on racism last Sunday: “We need to talk.”
Now Jesus is the master teacher in dealing with conversations that generate conflict. I know this is an odd topic to deal with on our annual picnic day, but it’s real. It is part of life, and it has an impact on our souls, which is why we step into it here at Epiphany. Who’s been in some conflict this past week? That is why Jesus deals with conflict, because it is such a part of the human condition. If it is part of the human condition, then there is opportunity within it to teach us something about the kingdom of God.
The part of the Gospel I want to look at specifically today is one-on-one conflict when we are the ones saying, “We need to talk.” Or when we are the ones hearing, “We need to talk.” Here is my thesis: that conflict can be an invitation to intimacy; that conflict can be a vehicle that moves us to a new place of insight and health, and maybe even to happiness and holiness. Let me say it again. Conflict can help us find greater intimacy when that conflict is understood within the context of the kingdom of God.
Now when I say conflict, I am not talking about abuse, or violence, or drama. What I’m talking about are conflicts that are generated from those perpetual, low-grade, chronic issues we have with someone we love. You know, those revolving issues that keep coming up over and over again in the relationship. Well, those conflicts can be invitations to intimacy. I’m also talking about those low-grade or high-pitch issues we have with someone at work, someone who lives next door, or someone we are related to. You know, like the boss that keeps stealing the stapler off your desk, the neighbor that keeps parking in your parking place, or the cousin that won’t RVSP to family events but always shows up. Those are conflict generators as well, and they are invitations to intimacy in the kingdom of God.
To help us think about this, it might be helpful to think about the Gospel from a different point of view. Instead of reading “If another member of the church sins against you,” read “If someone at work stabs you in the back,” or “If someone in your condominium complex steals from the common account,” or “If a member of your family lies to you.” The Gospel is alive when we set our lives in the context of Jesus’ teachings.
So here is what happens when we don’t deal with the conflict-generating issues—things explode! Sometimes they get sparked from things that have nothing to do with the thing that is happening at the time. That has probably never happened to any of you, but it happens to me. I’m like, “Where did that come from?” That is why, as uncomfortable as conflict can be, it is important to deal with these issues. Now it’s risky. Some people will flee instead of entering the conversation, but I think we’ll feel better for having tried. As a friend of mine said the other day, “Conflict: what’s the alternative? It is always messy, but it is better a controlled, anticipated mess, than an unexpected explosion.” By the end of this sermon I hope you agree and see how conflict in the kingdom of God is an invitation to intimacy because it tears down barriers and moves us toward truer, more authentic relationship. That is the pay-off.
This week as I was studying the Gospel with some of the staff, the issue of conflict came to our common mind. One of the staff members (I won’t mention Emily’s name) said: “Most people are afraid of conflict. It makes them uncomfortable; they avoid it.” Then she turned to me and said, “But not you, and that makes you a rather odd personality.” As I was contemplating that I felt a flood of pride wash over me: “Yes! I’m the kind of guy who is not afraid of conflict.” But the Gospel works on you. At least the Gospel works on me, and I continued to contemplate her comment, not the odd part, but the conflict part. And as I did I came to realize that it is the discomfort with conflict that makes it special. Conflict without discomfort doesn’t exist in the kingdom of God. Conflict without discomfort is about power and getting one’s way, which was not the personal insight I was looking for.
It is the discomfort that makes conflict a tool for prying open a space for intimacy. That uncomfortable feeling is vulnerability, and vulnerability acts as the alarm that signals that we are ready to put our soul on the line for a relationship. That is the pay-off. God makes the guarantee. We hear it today on the coattails of Jesus’ teaching about conversations that can generate conflict. When two come together to ask God anything, (and the greatest thing to ask for in the kingdom of God is deeper, more authentic relationship) God will grant it every time. If one person wants this and the other doesn’t, if you do and they don’t, then let them remain a Gentile or a tax-collector. This only means let them remain who they want to be and love them at the distance they request. Discomfort is key in signaling to us that we are ready to put our souls on the line for a more intimate relationship.
So there are times when we find ourselves compelled to say, “We need to talk.” And there are times when we find ourselves hearing someone say, “We need to talk.” We are the confronter and the confronted. Those are the two perspectives I’d like to touch upon now. First the confronter. Before you say, “We need to talk,” consider the heart of the matter. Consider what is in your heart, and consider what might be in their heart. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Wonder, “Where am I in this issue? What fires me up about this topic? Do I have a hot button here?” Consider your heart. Then ask, “Does this person even think this is an issue?” Annie Lamott writes, “Everyone thinks what they are doing is right. Otherwise they’d be doing something else.”
So take the issue to prayer. Prayer is a good tool for considering the heart of the matter. It puts us in touch with our own vulnerabilities, which is exactly where we want to be when inviting someone to a deeper sense of intimacy. Take it to prayer before you say “We need to talk.” But when you do say “We need to talk,” quickly follow it up by saying what you want to talk about. Signal the other person. It is helpful. It keeps them from feeling hijacked, but it also gives them time to consider the matter in their own heart. When you are the confronter, consider your heart and consider their heart before you say “We need to talk.”
Now when I hear “We need to talk,” the kingdom of Doyt defenses go on full alert. Man the guns. Prepare the counter attack. Somewhere along the way I learned that the best defense is a good offense. (Seem the Huskies know the same lesson.) My habit became this: “You want to talk? OK buddy, I have a few things I want to talk with you about.” And that defensiveness, that territorial self-preservation, win-lose mentality always put me on the fast train out of the kingdom of God. When someone says, “We need to talk,” instead of throwing up defenses, consider Jesus. Start by listening. Ask questions. Be curious. And consider Jesus. And as the information rolls in, as you begin to get a sense that someone is there in front of you posing an issue that gets your back up, consider Jesus. Start listening for him.
Then take note of Matthew 18. Is there one person in the room or a few? If there are a few and you have never heard from any of them individually on “said topic,” then pull out your Bible, unless of course it is already there on your desk, and turn to Matthew 18. Say, “Interesting topic. Looks like this is something you have observed. Who wants to set up a time to talk about it one-on-one?”
Now this is tough to do. It is easy to get blindsided in situations like this. Sometimes it takes a while to notice we’re in a pot of boiling oil, and stopping the situation can take courage. So consider Jesus. Consider what he promises at the end of Matthew 18: “…that when two or three are together, he is in the midst of us.” Jesus is there. When you consider him you will have courage, and you will know you will not disappear in a puff of smoke if you stand up for yourself. To stop a conversation and reconsider it in the light of the Gospel is to value the opportunity to move toward greater intimacy. Consider the heart of the matter when you are the confronter. And listen for Jesus when you are confronted.
Now the pay-off isn’t that we keep our stapler, or that our parking place will remain open, or that a certain cousin will RSVP. The pay-off is that in each of these cases there will be greater intimacy with the person we confront, then encounter, and then know in a new way. That is the guarantee, so try it and see. I suspect you’ll find yourself more centered in the kingdom of God. And as an extra bonus, we’ll feel more sure-footed in how we say, “we need to talk,” or how we hear, “we need to talk.”
That is real life. It has impact our souls, which is why Jesus talks about it, and why we practice his teachings here at Epiphany.